The ancient Greeks called it the magic mineral, whose fibers could withstand the fiercest heat and yet were soft and flexible as cotton. The Emperor Charlemagne used to wow visiting Visigoths by throwing his tablecloth made from it into the fire and pulling it out unscathed. It shears readily into strands. It is durable. It won't burn. It resists corrosion. It insulates well. It is common in nature, inexpensive to extract and easy to work with. In the years between World War II and 1970, its fibers were used in more than 3,600 products, ranging from painted ceiling decorations to ship's hold linings to ironing board covers to brake shoes. During its heyday, workers sprayed, spread and slathered the stuff around pretty freely.
Then, some 20 to 30 years after they had started working with it, a high proportion of asbestos workers were stricken with lung disease -- either a rare cancer of the abdominal lining called mesothelioma or a fatal scarring of the lungs that came to be called asbestosis, plain old-fashioned lung cancer. The miracle XTC fiber started looking more sinister than miraculous. Doctors found that the problem with asbestos fibers is those nifty little miracle fibers themselves, each one 1,200 times thinner than a human hair.
When asbestos is handled or disturbed, zillions of these infinitesimal mineral splinters float up into the air and hang there for hours. The workers breathed them deep into their lungs, and there they stayed forever, stabbing and pricking at their lung tissue like so many microscopic steel needles.
Because of these findings, the U.S. government banned certain uses of asbestos and began to regulate others. And, needless to say, everyone involved ended up in a giant lawsuit and is still there today.
In July, more than 26,000 cases pending in federal courts across the nation were consolidated in Philadelphia. And trial for a class-action suit filed by 9,000 Maryland asbestos victims resumes in Baltimore Circuit Court in mid-November.
Meanwhile, asbestos-containing materials have been built into an estimated 700,000 public and commercial buildings. Most of the nation's primary and secondary schools contain asbestos. And some 40 million American homes harbor the stuff in one form or another.
That means that 75 percent of us live in houses or apartments where, for all we know, everything but the kitchen sink is made of or coated with asbestos. My house contains asbestos, and chances are good that yours does, too -- especially if it was built or remodeled between 1920 and 1978.
That's bad news. However, because of the nature of asbestos, the news isn't as bad as it sounds. Remember "handled or disturbed" a few paragraphs back? Asbestos doesn't constantly seep from material the way, say, a gas like formaldehyde does. If the asbestos is in good condition, it is probably not doing you any harm unless you mess with it.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency is finding that removing asbestos that is in good condition from homes and buildings is riskier than managing it in place. Instead, they
recommend that you identify it, evaluate its condition and then make a considered decision about what to do with it. Five kinds of asbestos-containing materials are most commonly found in homes. These are:
1. Heating insulation. This stuff looks like grayish or white construction paper, or a plaster of Paris cast, wrapped around heating and hot water ducts and pipes. Look for it in your basement.
2. Popcorn ceiling coatings. This used to be very fashionable stuff. It is a textured ceiling coating that may contain glitter.
3. Suspended acoustical tile. Do you have dropped ceilings anywhere in your house? These tiles may contain asbestos.
4. Vinyl asbestos tile. This looks like ordinary linoleum tile. Look in your kitchen or bathroom.
5. Vinyl asbestos sheet goods. Ditto. The first three items in the list are what is called "friable." Because their fibers are bound with soft materials, such as starch and plaster of Paris, they tend to crumble and release fibers easily. The vinyl asbestos materials are much tougher. You really have to work at it to get fibers from these.
Unless you are planning to rip up or cut into vinyl asbestos flooring in your house, you don't need to worry about this stuff. Friable asbestos is another matter entirely. If you think your home has these materials, you must have them tested. I'll tell you how to do that in next week's column.